An extremely common source of stress on the job is largely self-inflicted: the chronic underestimation of how long a task will take. Whether it’s a routine motion you have to draft, a “touch-base” meeting with a partner or staff member, a quick call with a client, or cleaning up your office, it often takes longer than you assumed (or you don’t accomplish all you had hoped in the time available).
The result is the build-up of pressure as your day progresses. The problem is rooted in unrealistic thinking about the activity at hand. And the paradox, of course, is that consistently coming up short on estimates (or not even considering how long a particular activity will take) leads to more stress and reduced effectiveness.
Fortunately, as with so many areas of performance improvement, the beginning of the solution lies in increased awareness of your thoughts and emotions in the moment. Here’s a simple process that takes 20 or 30 seconds. As soon as you notice yourself moving on to a new task or activity:
- Think through what’s involved and how this kind of activity typically goes.
- Determine the specific scope of the action/activity you want to accomplish; that is, the specific chunk of work you want to get done given the time you think you have or want to spend
- Revise your mental schedule using the new, more realistic timeframe.
A good rule of thumb is to add 30% to the amount of time you initially give yourself (depending on the nature of the activity). If you finish early, great – you’ve got some breathing room when applying the process to your next activity. How can you develop the habit of using this three-step process? One way is to keep a log for a few days: at the start of a task, jot down how long you think it will take, and then go back to record the actual time it took.
By completing even one full page of such a log, you’ll have gotten your brain’s attention and will have reinforced the pause-think-revise process. Remember, much of the stress that builds up each day stems from the fact that your internal thoughts and feelings about how long you should be spending on something are out of sync with how much time you’re actually spending on it. Getting your inner and outer worlds in sync puts you in greater control, reduces your stress, and makes you more productive.